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Kirk Hansen, marketing and public relations director of Fantastic Caverns, says the tourist stop is concentrating its marketing efforts close to home this year because of increasing gas prices.
Kirk Hansen, marketing and public relations director of Fantastic Caverns, says the tourist stop is concentrating its marketing efforts close to home this year because of increasing gas prices.

Experts: Tourism on upswing

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During the recession, the American psyche may have lost its free-spending ways, and tourism, like so many other industries, took a tumble. Now, travel officials are cautiously optimistic, predicting slow growth for Branson and Springfield tourism in 2011.

The U.S. Travel Association is predicting a 1.6 percent increase in leisure travel this year, and that estimate seems to be in line with local expectations.

Silver Dollar City General Manager Brad Thomas said the Branson-based amusement park has started strong.

“Our early indicators are very encouraging,” Thomas said, pointing to an 11 percent increase in season pass sales through March 22. That’s 16,000 more tickets sold compared to this time last year.

Thomas said the company has sold 160,000 season passes to SDC and White Water in 2011 and is well on its way to its 240,000 goal. It sold 230,000 season passes in both 2008 and 2009, and 2008 figures included Celebration City before it closed. During the park’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2010, SDC issued 250,000 passes, but 15,000 of those were giveaways to people born in 1960 and couples celebrating their 50th anniversaries.

In its March 17 opening weekend, Thomas said the amusement park recorded 48,800 visitors, the best opening it’s had since it started opening early for spring break eight years ago. He said last year’s figures were down considerably due to snow on opening weekend.
Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Tracy Kimberlin said he expects modest increases in the number of visitors to Springfield this year.

Total hotel-motel occupancy has been below 50 percent in Springfield during the last two years – 49.1 percent in 2009 and 49.7 percent in 2010. Comparatively, the average 2010 occupancy rate nationwide was 57.6 percent, according to Smith Travel Research.

Pointing to the Hilton Garden Inn’s recent opening, which adds 125 rooms to the market, Kimberlin said occupancy is not necessarily expected to improve with the total number of rooms in town increasing.

“We tend not to look at occupancy as much as we look at occupied rooms,” Kimberlin said, noting total occupied rooms in 2010 were a flat 1.1 million and he expects that figure to increase by up to 2 percent. The Springfield CVB recorded 1.09 million occupied rooms in 2009 and nearly 1.2 million in 2008.

Dan Lennon, vice president of marketing for the Branson Lakes Area Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, expects the city will again host more than 8 million visitors in 2011. He anticipates a 2 percent to 3 percent increase in 2011 compared to last year’s estimated 8.01 million visitors.

Branson tourism climbed 16 percent between 2005 and 2007, Lennon said, marking the biggest period of growth for the city in terms of visitors. Lennon said Branson lost about 3.5 percent of its visitors in both 2008 and 2009, when visitor numbers settled at 7.78 million.

“Last year, we were up about 3 percent. It wasn’t booming, but it was a welcome reversal,” Lennon said.

He said consumer confidence is still relatively low and unemployment remains historically high – factors that kept estimates for this year conservative.

Kirk Hansen, marketing and public relations director of Fantastic Caverns, said the company’s annual marketing budget approaches $1 million, and it hasn’t been cut from 2010. Hansen said Fantastic Caverns attracted 130,000 visitors last year, and he’s expecting the same amount or a small increase in 2011.

“The best news for us is that we are within a gas-tank drive of probably 50 million to 60 million people. If gas becomes an issue, maybe instead of taking longer trips to the mountains or the beaches, those people might stay in the Midwest and come see us,” Hansen said.

He said Fantastic Caverns concentrates on marketing in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Okla.; Wichita, Kan.; and Kansas City. Hansen said the company has placed national cable TV ads in the past, but it decided to concentrate its efforts close to home this year. “That’s called fishing where the fish are.”

Kimberlin said Springfield might benefit from people staying closer to home this travel season due to climbing gas prices, but the long-term effect would be negative.

“We certainly don’t want to see gas prices get over $4 per gallon because that could be a psychological hurdle,” he said. “Typically, the Springfield-Branson area fares well when gas prices are high, because people tend to take trips closer to home. We tend to benefit.
However, I think there is a point where travel just stops. And what that point is, I’m not quite sure.”

In Branson, gas prices create a toss-up scenario. Lennon said people driving less to take a vacation could benefit the area, but “on the other hand, you have people who are going to go to Wisconsin Dells from Chicago instead of here.”

While the majority of people who visit Branson travel more than 300 miles, Lennon said it’s the core market visitors – those who travel less than 100 miles – who are providing the most growth.

In 2010, the core market comprised 19 percent of the city’s tourists, up from a 12 percent piece of the pie five years ago, a reflection of the “staycation” trend, Lennon said. The primary market – travelers from 100 miles to 300 miles away – has held steady at 25 percent.[[In-content Ad]]

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